Photo: Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. The camp is one of three, which house up to 300,000 Rohingya people fleeing inter-communal violence in Burma. Credit: Wikimedia Commons - Photo: 2017

Myanmar May be Able To Learn From Sri Lanka To Resolve the “Bengali” Problem

By Jayasri Priyalal*

SINGAPORE (IDN) – The Rohingya crisis and influx of refugees to Bangladesh is headline stories in the media at present. As a Sri Lankan I could note the similarity of the conflicts of statelessness that prevailed in Sri Lanka then and Myanmar at present, and Sri Lanka’s approach to solving the crisis with India could be a framework for Myanmar to follow.

In 1948 when Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain, the island nation was left with about one million Tamils who were called “Indian Tamils” in Sri Lanka. They were brought to Sri Lanka from South India from the lowest Dalit caste to work in tea plantations that were set up on land the British confiscated from Sinhala peasants, who refused to work in those plantations. Thus the presence of these Tamils was deeply resented by the Sinhalese. British have created a stateless community who were neither Indian nor Sri Lankan citizens.

Statelessness creates hopelessness and helplessness in any person irrespective of one’s economic status. An uncertainty arising from such situations brings untold miseries to those who are caught up in conflicts; many of them are poor and destitute as seen in the tense situation between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Media report that the Myanmar Army is behind all the atrocities leading to violence in Rakhine state targeting Rohingya community. The Myanmar government responds claiming they are Muslim extremist, identified as Arkhine Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) who attacked 35 police posts, and one military camp in the Myanmar-Bangladesh border on August 25, 2017, the day Advisory Commission of Rakhine State, headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was scheduled to release the interim report. As claimed by the Myanmar Government, the military crackdown was initiated to protect all citizens in Rakhine, including the Bengalis who are now living under pathetic conditions subject to all forms of violence.

Media and lobby groups are blaming Myanmar State Counsellor Aung Sang Suu Kyi for not taking steps to prevent a textbook ‘ethnic cleansing’. Blame and criticism are two sets of functions; usually, take cognizance to dramatize issues to make stories newsworthy to attract attention to win public sympathy. But, policymakers need to maintain the right balance between the emotional and rational approach to come up with lasting solutions to issues that often have roots from the colonial rule.

If one looks at the timing of the ARSA attacks, in addition to the release of the Kofi Annan report, there were also the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Myanmar, and the international media campaign against Suu Kyi for not responding and taking actions to prevent human rights violations in Myanmar on the eve of her visit to address the UN General Assembly. Her critics and the human rights lobby groups are blaming her for remaining silent as the State Counsellor did not yield to pressure tactics.

There are three infamous historical lines of divisions created in the 20th century by colonial powers that embedded seeds of rivalry and birth of terrorism resulting in wars, leading to untold human sufferings even up to this day. First: the partition of India and Pakistan on August 15, 1947. Second: the division on May 15, 1948, between Arabs and Jews and creation of the state of Israel. Third: separation, in the same year (1948) of Burma from India. This is history.

These geopolitical decisions opened up to numerous separation struggles, with the feeling of statelessness and lack of ownership amongst the population living within these territories surrounded by the lines of conflicts. Often, mythical beliefs, distorted historical facts were used to legitimize cases for separation fanning flames lobbying for opinions to justify the cause of freedom struggles and supporting and aiding groups to resort to violence to resolve issues.

Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and Myanmar (then Burma) had to face the challenge of awarding citizenship to the indentured labour, brought as a cheap source of labour to work in the plantations set up by the British during the colonial rule.

Indentured labour was the alternative method to replace slave trade by the colonial masters; executed professionally, by getting the labour families identified as “Coolies” and getting them to sign a contract written in English and getting them to agree with a thumbprint. None of them knew what was in the contract; they were assured of a job/work but did not know where they were heading for when they were packed into steamers.

Many of them, being of Indian origin did not realize they would never return home, and end up as stateless citizens in faraway places, such as in the Caribbean and South Pacific Islands such as Fiji to work in sugarcane plantations, nearer places such as Burma and Ceylon. These groups of indentured labour introduced two Tamil language words starting with letter ‘C’ into the English dictionary: these are CURRY and COOLIES. Fortunately, in many of these colonial plantation economies, the statelessness has been resolved but there are tensions between minorities and majorities to seek socio-economic and political power.

The stateless situation of the Indian indentured labour working in tea plantations in Sri Lanka was resolved in 1964 by way of a pact between then Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Ceylonese Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Both countries agreed to absorb the stateless citizens’ through repatriation and awarding citizenship. By 1980 statelessness issue was resolved completely. But in Sri Lanka, there is a lot of work to be done to improve the quality of life of these marginalized groups in the plantations.

Similarly, Bangladesh and Myanmar entered into an agreement in 1993, but Bangladesh government had difficulties in dealing with the dictatorial military government in Myanmar. We should welcome the statement made by Myanmar State Counsellor Suu Kyi, during her address on September 19, 2017, indicating to absorb legitimate Rohingya community back to the Rakhine state.

Similarly, due credit also should be given to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheik Hasina for welcoming the Rohingya victims and providing support and care to the refugees now taking shelter in various makeshift camps in Cox Bazar in trying conditions.

Therefore the international agencies should push the governments both in Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve the issue through dialogue and discussions, as did India and Ceylon through a pact in 1964.

It will be disastrous to justify violence as a means of supporting terror on either party giving the issue a twist as the conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in religious and communal beliefs. The problem needs to be seen as humanitarianarising from statelessness and hopelessness leading to poor economic conditions. The plight of refugees crossing many African territories to reach Europe as migrants is a good living example.

Right diagnosis is half of the solution, provided the causes and effects supported with facts are established. Both the ladies in power in Bangladesh and Myanmar have the capacities to find creative and innovative solutions with a rational approach for longstanding peace and prosperity in their respective countries. What is necessary is to create an enabling environment not leading to emotional actions and reactions fanning the flames of discrimination based on ethnoreligious differences.

*The writer is the Regional Director of Finance, Professional and Management Group, UNI Global Union Asia-Pacific based in Singapore. [IDN-InDepthNews – 25 September 2017]

Photo: Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The camp is one of three, which house up to 300,000 Rohingya people fleeing inter-communal violence in Burma. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top